Therapy Dog Brightens Patient Treatment


Jackson Wilson and Fitz


ThedaCare Adds Canine Visit to Regional Cancer Center

When 30-year-old Jackson Wilson of Clintonville was receiving his chemotherapy treatment at the ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in November, he also received an unexpected visit from a special four-footed volunteer.

Fitzgerald William, also known as “Fitz,” is a purebred Basset Hound and a pet therapy dog that has visited the cancer center weekly since November. Visits by Fitz and his handler help lower stress for both patients and family members who accompany them to their treatment appointments.

“He brightens up the room. The whole mood, everything just flips upside down,” Wilson said. “Everybody’s smiling, everybody’s having a good time, and the nurses will come in and will visit just a little bit more.”

In fact, Fitz’s popularity has reached beyond the cancer center itself. Wilson posted photos of Fitz to his CaringBridge.org page – an online journal used to update friends and family about treatment – and they starting asking more about Fitz than about Wilson.

“Everybody’s curious about the dog, and less curious about the cancer, which is totally fine,” said Wilson, a police officer who is undergoing treatment for Stage III pure seminoma, a type of testicular cancer that particularly impacts young people. Wilson’s treatment requires him to be at the Appleton cancer center sometimes for up to eight hours, so the visits by Fitz are a welcome diversion.

In 2016, ThedaCare At Home Hospice launched a pet therapy volunteer program that quickly expanded to 14 teams of handlers and dogs. The popularity of the program motivated oncology leaders to explore whether pet therapy might be beneficial to ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center as well, said Michelle Vandenboogart, nurse manager for the hematology and oncology program at the center.

Fitz began visiting ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in November 2016, usually staying one or two hours and visiting all areas where patients receive treatment, including the radiation and chemotherapy treatment areas, Vandenboogart said. Additionally, Fitz and his handler will visit the lobby so family members and friends who accompany their loved ones to appointments can visit with the dog.

“There’s never been day where we’ve been here and somebody hasn’t wanted to spend time with him,” said Vandenboogart. “When the team members see him, they can’t help but smile. It just creates a positive energy.”

Research has shown that pet therapy decreases stress hormones and increases the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. That helps improves healing by decreasing heart rates, lowering anxiety and reducing feelings of depression. It’s evident in watching people interact with the dog that they are feeling happier and more peaceful during and after his visit.

Therapy dogs must meet certain requirements for behavior and interaction with people and their environments, said Fitz’s handler, Molly Johnson, owner and consultant with Canine Comfort, LLC, of Oconomowoc. The dogs must be gentle and able to remain calm around equipment and unexpected loud noises, for example. ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center also takes precautions to protect patients with lowered immunity in addition to asking patients prior to Fitz’s visit whether they’d like to see the dog.

As in Wilson’s case, many patients in the cancer center sometimes must be there for most of the day receiving treatment, and knowing the dog will be there can help make a potentially difficult day a little brighter.

“It brings joy in the moment, it brings distraction,” Johnson said. “It helps somebody to get through sitting there for five or six hours while they receive their treatment. We want people wanting to come in, and we want people to feel comfortable and happy.”

To learn more about pet therapy, please contact Molly Johnson at 920.716.1890 or email at mjohnson@caninecomfort.us.

For more than 100 years, ThedaCare™ has been committed to finding a better way to deliver serious and complex healthcare to patients throughout Northeast Wisconsin. The organization serves over 200,000 patients annually and employs more than 7,000 healthcare professionals throughout the region. ThedaCare has seven hospitals located in Appleton, Neenah, Berlin, Waupaca, Shawano, New London and Wild Rose as well as 34 clinics in 14 counties. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving our specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a non-profit healthcare organization with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs as well as a foundation dedicated to community service.  ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in Appleton opened in February 2016. For more information, visit www.thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on Facebook and Twitter.